by Sarah Westlake, PostScript’d
Black Woman Redefined will be released in paperback Nov. 20, with new essays and an interview with The First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama. In this book, Sophia Nelson lays waste to the age-old stereotypes of black women as angry, loud-mouthed, and out of shape by creating new images through letters and essays. Her goal is to show another side and perhaps recreate, reinvent, and redefine what it means to be a black woman.
“Too many of us have been living in the shadows of how others have mis-defined us as black women
since slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights era and even now,” said Nelson. “It’s time for us to take care of us first instead of taking care of everyone else, as we far too often do. It’s time to change the game in a new century, for a new outcome.”
P.S.: What was the genesis of Black Woman Redefined? Why did you write this book?
SN: The book had two beginnings, if you will. The first was when I started to outline the project in 2006. I had created this wonderful sister organization called “I Am My Sister’s Keeper” in 2004 in my home with about 12-14 friends. And it grew into hundreds of black professional women, then thousands of subscribers globally just by speaking a message of what it is that we as black women were facing, how we were not coping well emotionally, relationally, financially, and even spiritually. All while keeping up a brave front but literally dying from stress related diseases, depression, loneliness, isolation, and career challenges that we could not talk about in the open without feeling vulnerable in a not so good way.
But when the Obamas came on the scene in 2008, specifically Michelle Obama when she was attacked as “an angry black woman,” I penned an op-ed for the Washington Post that went viral. It was a game changer; I reshaped my idea of what I wanted to say to the world about us as a new generation of educated, accomplished, savvy black women. I landed a book deal, and the rest was, as they say, history.
P.S.: What was the message you wanted to leave your reader with?
SN: Well, the message for all readers is that black women are not these angry, unkind, foul-mouthed, strident, obese, broken, ugly people that we are far too often still caricatured as, even in the age of our fabulous First Lady Michelle Obama.
Look at last year, Psychology Today said black women were the least attractive group of women. ABC did a show on why successful black women can’t get a man. I could go on and on, but no need. We all know that stereotypes aren’t funny when they follow you everywhere. As for black women, the message I want us to take away is that you are either defining or redefining your life for all of your life. It’s a journey. So embrace the journey by embracing the authentic, true YOU. Do YOU.
P.S.: How long did it take you to write this book?
SN: It took me more than 5 years from start to finish, with various versions of the manuscript, editor rewrites, and the research, which took one year after we commissioned The Polling Company and Dr. Silas Lee & Associates for the black male research component that I felt was important.
P.S.: How did you select the women to feature in this book?
SN: The hardcover version and paperback (which is new) feature different women at the end of the book in the essay/wisdom section. But Mrs. Obama is the one consistent feature. I open the book with an open letter to her. In the paperback, I have an interview in that letter that I did with her last April at the White House. The other consistent woman I featured was the late Dr. Dorothy Height. She was to pen an essay for the first edition in 2011, but she passed away in 2010 before her essay was completed.
The other women and men featured are all names we know, and some we need to know. They are the living embodiment of how to properly define, and redefine one’s life. I looked for people who have been solid, resilient, caring, successful, compassionate, coupled, divorced, single, married, mothers, husbands, aunts, uncles, etc. I looked for people who truly represent the depth and diversity of who we are as a black community in the 21st century.
P.S:. Why is this topic so important? Do black women really need redefining in 2012?
SN: It is important for one reason: we as black women have been wrongly defined and stereotyped and it has cost us dearly in terms of our self worth, self-love. We are women who carry a lot of pain inside of our hearts and bodies. It shows in all the health indices from heart disease, to high-blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, fibroids cancer, obesity, and more. And yes, we need to REDEFINE ourselves for ourselves as Zora Neale Hurston once said.
P.S.: What about white women, Asian women, Hispanic women? How is the plight of black women so different?
SN: That is such an important and deep question, which I do address at great length in chapters 1 and 2 at the outset of the book. In order to understand your present you must deal with your past. It is a simple rule of life and of history. My opening sentence of the book about us as black women is: ”Some say we have conquered the world as accomplished black women, I say we have YET to conquer ourselves.”
All successful journeys start with self-assessment and self conquering of weaknesses, faults, issues we may be in denial about. This book met with great resistance from older black women who did not want me to air our “dirty laundry,” to mainstream media, morning shows and white women hosts that normally love to focus on books about women, women’s progress, healing, coaching, etc. But they passed on this book because they felt (I was told this by several people) that it was controversial, or that they had a hard time relating to the premise of the book and why it mattered so much to the “rest of America.”
It was hurtful to me on many levels. This book has also been passed over by many of my fellow sisters who have platforms and could promote the positive message contained therein but instead they will interview a NeNe Leakes or an Evelyn Lozado because they get ratings. It is what it is. I am candidly not worried about what others think of why I wrote this or if it applies to them or not.
This book is our story, told by us, about by and for us. If only people know the hell (and I use that term on purpose) I went through to see this book through. We as black women are still invisible, despite Oprah’s and Mrs. Obama’s successes and the 2012 election proves this. There’s not one black woman elected to the U.S. Senate (there will be 19 women serving in the Senate in 2013). Not one in the governor’s mansion. We are not in the seats of power in corporate America, politics, industry, or in academia.
Sure a few of us have made it, but not enough of us given the enormous pool of talent that we have with sisters holding JDs, PHDs, MBAs, etc. Women is still defined as “white women.” Be clear on that because I am. And it’s why I wrote this very important book. I needed the next generation of young black women to know they count, they matter, and they are worthy.
P.S.: List 3 women who have inspired you?
SN: My mother, Sandria Nelson, is my one true thing in this world. She is self-educated; she went back to school when she was almost 30 years old after being a mom and housewife for years, and got her RN degree. She knew she needed to better herself. She was raised old-school by a preacher (my great granddaddy) and she was poor, abused, and at times orphaned with her two younger brothers. She overcame a lot in her life. And I have never seen that woman be unkind a day in my life. She is truly a Godly woman. I like to think the best of me came from her. I am very different than she in many ways, but her heart, compassion and love for people I got 100% for better or worst. Sometimes I am not sure if it is a gift or a curse (laughs).
Second would be the late Shirley Chisholm. She was unbought and unbossed as she penned in her autobiography. She was a true trailblazer, before her time. I met her when I was about 24 years old, and we became pen pals. She was such an inspiration to me because she was feisty, fierce, and fabulous. She was the real deal, strong, authentic, and a committed black woman that some of us need to get back to for real. We have gotten away from being ”sisters” in its truest form. We need more Shirleys.
Lastly, our First Lady Michelle Obama. I adore her. I think I have a girl crush on her (laughs)–I mean, come on, she is in the subtitle of my book, and I open with a very personal letter to her on behalf of the sisterhood. Seriously, though, I have met her, sat with her, interviewed her and she is 100% REAL! What you see is what you get. She is fit, fine, fun, and fierce in her style. She is fabulous in her nature, and focused when it comes to her priorities like her husband and her daughters. She is a living, breathing role model to all young black girls, teens, and women.
But more than that (Michelle Obama) is a role model to all young women that you can, in fact, have it all. You can be educated, accomplished, smart, successful, married to a great (somewhat successful guy–laughs), physically fit into your late 40s, a great mom, wife, daughter, friend, and champion of great causes, like our military veterans and our nation’s fitness and well being.